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Playing in Museums with Pablo Helguera

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I have known artist and educator Pablo Helguera for many years, during which I’ve enjoyed his playful approach to art and art spaces, and his serious approach to play. I have seen him organize experimental educational programs at major museums and art institutions, such as the 2011 “Art Speech: A Symposium on Symposia” (with James Elkins) at MoMA, a sort of metacommentary on the forms and conventions of art scholarship and public presentation.

That event included a live deconstruction of a lecture by art historian T.J. Clark and a critical evaluation of MoMA audio guides (other symposia organized by Helguera as an educator at MoMA took even more expanded and playful formats, including a Colombian party bus that he chartered for a 2009 symposium on “Transpedagogy”). 

In 2013, I was in the audience for his scripted panel discussion at the College Art Association annual meeting, which reimagined the conference as a performance space with actors reading a script authored by Helguera and collaborators. And in February of last year (2023), I attended his Untitled (Comedy Show) performance featuring artist Martha Rosler, a full off-broadway performance and talk show in an NYC dinner theater venue, which was rounded out by an art trivia game show activity and small audience prizes to take away. 

In all of these endeavors, Helguera integrates playful formats with serious topics, and shows how artwhich, at least in principle, should be a playful and experimental disciplineis so frequently limited to presentation spaces defined by rigid protocols. Helguera’s work intentionally defies those expectations and challenges those norms.

I admire his practice, both  in art and education, and his inventive and creative approach to pedagogy and learning. That is why I was excited to get to speak with Helguera  about his new work Flor de Juegos Antiguos (Flower of Ancient Games) (2023), created for a recently-opened group presentation at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new Joseph Education Center Experience Gallery. 

Pablo Helguera's Flor de Juegos Antiguos (Flower of Ancient Games) at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Joseph Education Center Experience Gallery.
Pablo Helguera's Flor de Juegos Antiguos (Flower of Ancient Games) at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Joseph Education Center Experience Gallery.
Pablo Helguera's Flor de Juegos Antiguos (Flower of Ancient Games) at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Joseph Education Center Experience Gallery.
I think of this as an antique arcade. I grew up in 1980s malls playing Pac-Man and Space Invaders on consoles, so the project is a small nod to those experiences.
Pablo Helguera

Can you describe the work on view at the BMA right now?

I felt I needed to acknowledge the history of the BMA’s encyclopedic collection as well as the diversity of the public so that it’s going to engage. The subject that we were assigned was “play.” The natural thing for me was to explore games from different parts of the world as they related to historical periods from the different geographic and cultural areas that are represented in the museum’s collection.

Flor de Juegos Antiguos is the title of a book from the mid-20th century by a Mexican writer named Agustin Yañez. The book, whose title literally translates as Flower of Antique Games, is a memoir of his childhood in the state of Jalisco. I always liked the title, as the original “flor” refers to a collection—a bouquet of sorts—of games; and thought it would be appropriate for this project. I then thought it would be interesting for tables housing antique games in my installation to take a flower-shaped structure. I think of this as an antique arcade. I grew up in 1980s malls playing Pac-Man and Space Invaders on consoles, so the project is a small nod to those experiences (and I am aware that the 80s are back today in mainstream culture, from Stranger Things to Five Nights at Freddy’s). So the format is both old and experimental. But because of the period I was dealing with, maybe I was instead constructing a miniature Medieval arcade.

Your installation includes a facsimile of the Libro de los juegos, a 13th century book commissioned by Alfonso X that contains instructions for games including chess, tablas (a version of backgammon), and alquerque (a war strategy game). How did you become interested in this book?

I was researching the history of chess. Chess was invented in India and made its way through the Middle East and eventually to Spain during the period of convivencia, which means “living together”. This was an amazing moment in the history of the Iberian Peninsula, before Spain was Spain, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted for seven centuries. This was not by any means a perfect coexistence, but they made it work.

The king of Castile in the 10th century was Alfonso el sabio, Alfonso the Wise. He was an important humanist, interested in the arts and education. He surrounded himself with poets and thinkers from every religion, and this was one of the first instances that we can see of a multi-racial, multi-faith court in Europe. At some point he came up with this idea that everyone should know the rules of games. It was almost like a royal decree: everybody should learn how to play games. He thus commissioned a book of games as an educational publication with exercises and gorgeous illustrations. It’s an amazing depiction, both an instructional manual but also a historical documentation of the time. 

 

Facsimile of Libro de los juegos, commissioned by Alfonso X

In my research he seems to be someone interested in rulescreating legislature and judicial bodies. I suppose there’s a connection to his impulse to disseminate a book of rules for game playing.

I find that rules and art are very interrelated. And I have always been interested in the subject of rules. In his book Altissima povertá: Regole monastiche e forme di vita (The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life) Giogio Agamben writes about a book from the Middle Ages that was a manual of sorts for monks, referred to as Vita Vel Regula, or book of rules. The book gives you a very strict list of activities that every monk should do from dawn till dusk: waking up praying, going into the field, working in the field, having breakfast, and praying again. The process of doing the activities a number of times is what actually marks the time, creating the structure of the day for the monk. It’s a really performative process of understanding life and structuring it with rules. This is the subject of what I think is my most important work, with the same title, Vita Vel Regula. It’s a game that is played through the lifetime of fifty people that I know. 

I am interested to hear about your thinking about rules.

I’ve never fully consciously thought about it, I think but I am very interested in rules and classification, and structures of knowledge. I don’t know if it has to do with my background in education. But in a larger sense, I think we all want structures. Artists are naturally inclined to construct mechanisms, guides and rules that then we follow to produce art works.

They usually go unstated, but in your 2007 Manual of Contemporary Art Style you put to the page a lot of art world rules as if a game manual or instruction book. For example: “If artist 1 attends the opening of artist 2, it will be the duty of artist 2 to attend the opening of artist 1. In fact, it is the ethical duty of every artist and curator to attend the openings of all of those artists and curators of note who attend their openings.” This is not so far afield from the book of games. You even include a diagram of how to navigate an art opening with a diagram that uses chess pieces to represent the players of the vernissage.

Obviously, this is a satire, right? I wrote that book at a time when I was feeling jaded about the art world. It’s a satire of a sociological type, using a structure of rules in order to make sense. Yet a lot of people took that manual, especially when it came out in the Spanish version, as not ironic. But irony is always linked to the truth it ironizes. For example, when I make my Artoons [series of comics] it’s a similar situation because, you know, you can’t make something funny if there’s not some truth to it. 

Pablo Helguera. "The Painting is Half A Million" Artoons, 2008-2022 Series
Helguera, Pablo. (2009) "Artoons Vol 2.", New York: Jorge Pinto Books, p. 109
Whether they self-identify as art works or not (be it Fluxus-style instruction art or something similar), games have a very creative and artistic component. They're nothing other than sets of rules, and rules can evolve and be completely reinvented. 
Pablo Helguera

Yes, I’m thinking of your Artoon with people crawling through a desert looking for an oasis and remarking “At the very least there has to be a Guggenheim nearby!”

It was completely absurd. But at the same time, they really were building a Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. I myself started working at the Guggenheim at the very height of the “Bilbao Effect” period, in 1998, shortly after Bilbao had opened to the public and Tom Krens was seemingly selling Guggenheim franchises to every city that would want one, so this Artoon was a memory of that period, in a way. The irony is that I hadn’t thought much about the connection between this Artoon and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, until the group Gulf Labor asked me to allow them to use the image for their campaign, which I gladly did.

I take the Manual of Contemporary Art Style as satire. But it seems you take a similar approach in Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011), which is not satire. You offer guidelines, or structures, of how one might put together a conversation. In one section, you describe the difference between formal and informal modes of speech, and you go on to describe how socially-engaged artists might seek to create more convivial environments and loosen formality. It’s not surprising that you would be interested in rules as establishing or reflecting formalities back to us. But then, of course, in Flor de Juegos Antiguos, on the back of each game rule card, you offer options for breaking the rules, or inventing new rules, or an “artist’s variation” on the conventional rules.

I guess I’ve always seen my role as an educator as someone who can provide diagrams of knowledge, not with the intention of establishing a definitive truth, but primarily to break an issue down into parts so that it can be better understood, engaged with, and, if necessary, contested.

You might want to see it differently. You might want to propose something different. In a certain way, it’s a provocation. 

As to the “artist’s variation of the rules”: game design is like conceptual art, even if game designers don’t always claim to be conceptual artists. I realized this when I co-organized a symposium at MoMA in 2012 on that topic, and the game design community enthusiastically participated, feeling that they had finally been “seen” by the art world.

In the end, whether they self-identify as art works or not (be it Fluxus-style instruction art or something similar), games have a very creative and artistic component. They’re nothing other than sets of rules, and rules can evolve and be completely reinvented.  We do so in order to have a meaningful, interactive, social experience. And some rules are more conducive to making something really fun. This is why it’s interesting to study the histories of these existing games, and to reimagine them.

 

Pablo Helguera. Flor de Juegos Antiguos (Flower of Ancient Games). Baltimore Museum of Art Joseph Education Center.
Pablo Helguera. Flor de Juegos Antiguos (Flower of Ancient Games). Baltimore Museum of Art Joseph Education Center.
Wall of Wonder at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Joseph Education Center Experience Gallery, photo by Mitro Hood
Mary Flanagan's Topophilia also part of the group installation at Baltimore Museum of Art Joseph Education Center. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Derrick Adams. Dew Drop Inn as part of the group installation at Baltimore Museum of Art Joseph Education Center. Photo by Mitro Hood.

Pablo Helguera creates works in media including collage, comics, writing, performance, and the construction of public scenarios such as bookstores, comedy shows, and conversation spaces. Helguera was Senior Manager of Public Programs at the Guggenheim between 1998 and 2005, and Director of Adult and Academic programs at MOMA between 2007 and 2020. Flor de Juegos Antiguos will be on long-term public display at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new Joseph Education Center Experience Gallery. 

Rebecca Uchill is Director of the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture (CADVC) at UMBC. She is an art historian, curator, and critic of contemporary art.

Images courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art and Rebecca Uchill

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